The Rich Man and Lazarus

“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:  And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” – Luke 16:19-31

The above passages from the sixteenth chapter of Luke are cited as a sufficient case for rejecting two doctrines, namely the annihilation of the wicked and the sleep of the dead. These statements are taken to support the concept of the immortality of the soul, and therefore brought forth as proof along with an array of stock arguments to suggest that those who hold to contrary doctrines are nothing short of heretics. Therefore any further investigation into the matter of death or final punishments is effectively stifled, or so it would seem.

Many have been silenced by the above cited verses, shrinking at opposition thus encountered from those who cling to traditional views. Yet no one stops to ask much needed questions. If these statements of holy writ are indeed to be taken as though they support the traditional view of hell, does this then mean that the Bible contradicts itself? Do we as Christians run around with a contradictory Bible, which teaches one point and then turns around and teaches the opposite?

The prudent would admonish one to think on this matter carefully. In the book of 1st Timothy, we find passages which present glaring contradictions to the way in which the above statements from Christ have been interpreted. The passages read, “That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ: which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only potentate, the King of kings and Lord of Lords; who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.” – 1 Timothy 6:14-16

These verses from 1st Timothy are clear. Reading all of the surrounding details, it should be apparent that only God/Jesus is immortal. The words “Who only hath immortality” could not be a more straight forward declaration. With such clarity, the conclusion is inescapable. If only God is immortal, than obviously no part of man is immortal, which means that man does not possess some kind of immortal soul which separates from the body at death. This is what is required in order for a man to receive rewards or punishments immediately upon dying, or to be whisked away to some kind of conscious intermediate state. If man does not possess an immortal soul, then any of the previously listed states in death are impossibilities. In addition, the lack of an immortal soul means that one could not burn in the fires of hell for any length of time without being killed.

Thus a contradiction exists between 1 Timothy 6:14-16 and these statements of Christ. Further complicating the matter are Christ’s own teachings found elsewhere in the gospels. From the fifth chapter of John we find the following, “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” – John 5:28-29.

These passages from John present a problem for the literal interpretation of the above words of Christ. The words “in the graves” present glaring contradictions for this kind of thinking. How is it that anyone could be ‘in the graves’ if they are in either heaven or hell, or some kind of vat for the supposedly conscious dead? Some might attempt to get around this by simply contending that these statements only reference the body, but this would be nothing short of eisegesis. The lack of references to the body present in these passages make any attempt to read the word “bodies” into the verse a clear case of twisting the scriptures. By placing everyone who has died unanimously in the graves, Christ’s words clearly reference the entire man, and cannot be applied to the body alone.

Those who believe that rewards are given at death are immediately confronted with the problem of resurrection. John 5:28-29 clearly gives two resurrections, one of life and the other of death. The titles attached to each indicate their purpose. Yet these would be made obsolete by the idea that when a man dies, he is whisked away to receive his rewards or punishments. It is nothing short of confusion to imagine the soul sent to hell, only to be placed back in the body, so that both soul and body can be raised up, only to be burned some more. Those who hold to this type of a position would do well to re-examine the foundations for their beliefs, while others who think the soul goes to a conscious intermediate state had better ask themselves why Jesus described anyone as being in the graves.

Yet there is one story in the book of John that complicates the matter further. Many Christians are perhaps familiar with the story of the resurrection of Lazarus, found in the eleventh chapter of John. The verses which most stand out in view of the words of Christ in Luke 16 read, “These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus said unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.” – John 11:11-14.

In these verses, Jesus seems to cryptically state that Lazarus is asleep. The confused disciples responded by saying that “he shall do well”, in view of the fact that if he slept he would merely awaken and be fine. However, scripture is very clear that Jesus was mentioning Lazarus’ death. These passages generate the obvious inescapable conclusion that Jesus is here referring to death as a sleep. But why is it exactly that Jesus is doing this? For the simple fact that there is no consciousness in death, otherwise sleep would not be a fitting statement to attach to it. This would explain the expressions of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, where he clearly stated “the dead know not anything.”

These facts create serious problems for the literal interpretation of the Rich man and Lazarus. One of the largest is the name of the individual involved. Many Christians contend that the words of Christ in Luke 16 are to be read as a literal history. If this is indeed the case, than we are to believe that Lazarus both slept in his grave and went into the bosom of Abraham. Yet this cannot be possible, as the word “sleep” suggests unconsciousness. A lack of consciousness eliminates the idea that the ‘soul’ is to be immediately transported anywhere upon death, as the whole man sleeps until the resurrection. This fact can be made much more clear by comparing John 11:11-14 with John 5:28-29.

Due to the fact that these passages from the eleventh chapter of John strike directly at the heart of tradition, many might attempt to get around these verses. Some might go so far as to suggest that no consciousness in death is a heresy, and that the word “sleep” as used by not only Jesus himself but by the apostle Paul [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18] references the body alone. If one really contemplates such an idea, it becomes clear just how ridiculous the assertion sounds. Jesus clearly used the words, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth” before he said “Lazarus is dead.” Why did he not say, “Lazarus is in Abraham’s Bosom” or “Lazarus has gone to heaven” or perhaps even “His soul has gone to heaven, while his body sleeps..”? If we are to believe that the body sleeps while the soul goes somewhere else, would these not be more fitting statements? The fact of the matter is the words, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth” clearly is a reference to the entire man.

Even the concept of sleep itself creates problems for the literal interpretation of Christ’s words in Luke 16. Near the very beginning of the story, there are three passages that I would like to especially focus in on. They read, “And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.” – Luke 16:22-24.

To begin, these verses have “consciousness” written all over them. This is evident by the fact that the rich man is described as lifting up his eyes and crying out to “Father Abraham.” Than if this part of the sixteenth chapter of Luke is to be read literally, a contradiction is created between the passages of Luke 16:22-24 and John 11:11-14, both of which contain the words of Christ. Unconsciousness in death would obviously eliminate any possibility of being able to cry out to any one, there being any torment for the rich man to experience when he died, or there being any ability to ‘lift up his eyes’. Yet Jesus clearly stated that death was to be compared to a sleep [which is unconsciousness], and then seemingly turned around and told a story in which a man was consciously transported to hell when he died.

The question therefore remains, does the Bible contradict itself? It is an unfortunate reality that such would cause Atheists to exult and exclaim that we as Christians have been lied to, and that we are foolish for believing in the scriptures. Therefore these contradictions must be resolved. In the very beginning of these statements from the sixteenth chapter of Luke, we find a certain recurring phrase that appears elsewhere in the gospels, usually in connection with parables. Two such examples may be seen below.

“And he said, A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.” – Luke 15:11-16

“Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:” – Matthew 21:33

The phrase “there was a certain” or “a certain man” is used by Christ frequently in connection with parables. As shown by the above examples, scripture sometimes directly identifies the parable and sometimes does not. Note that Christ used an obviously fictitious narrative in the fifteenth chapter of Luke as a teaching point. He describes a son, who takes his father’s goods into a far country and wastes “his substance with riotous living.” Most Christians recognize this as the parable of the prodigal son. We find a similar phrase occurring again in Matthew 21, this time connected with a clear statement that he is about to speak a parable.

Does this mean that since Jesus did not directly identify the prodigal son story as a parable, it must be read as literal history? Any Christian spoken to recognizes these descriptions given in Luke 15 as a parable, and will more than likely not take it as a literal history. Indeed, if we are to believe the story given is always literal merely because a clear statement that it is a parable is missing than perhaps we should believe that trees talk. One need only look in the ninth chapter of Judges to verify this fact. “And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them, Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you. The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us.” – Judges 9:7-9

Christians recognize Jotham to be speaking a fable, which is also a fictitious narrative. Yet there are no clear indicators of this fact before he begins to speak. It is only evident from an obviously fictitious element present in the story, such as the concept of talking trees. Therefore the fact that a clear statement of “this is a parable” missing from the text before, after, or during the story does not necessarily mean it is to be taken as literal history. Yet quite a few Christians still mistakenly treat the story of the Rich man and Lazarus this way, thereby wresting it in support of tradition.

The phrase “there was a certain rich man” indicates that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. This is demonstrated by the fact that Jesus used similar statements and phrases in connection with fictitious narratives in various locations in the gospels. For more evidence that this story is not to be taken literally, one need only look to the obvious fictitious elements present in the story. The story furnishes us with details such as the Rich man calling out to ‘Father Abraham’ and a request for water to cool the Rich man’s tongue. If one was ablaze in fiery torment, a drop of water for your tongue wouldn’t be very helpful. Additionally, what would be the use in calling out to ‘Father Abraham’? What authority does Abraham have to really do anything? It is obvious that there wouldn’t be much good done in calling out to him.

Even beyond this, Abraham and the Rich Man are described as talking to each other. This conjures the horrific thought that while the saved are in heaven, the lost are burned in full-view of the saved. They are apparently even capable of hearing the shrieks and cries of the lost as they burn throughout all eternity. Yet if that were the case, how would the promise of Revelation 21:4 find it’s fulfillment? [“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” – Revelation 21:4] Enjoying the abodes of heaven is an impossibility with the thought of your suffering friends and loved ones ever before you, much less having to hear it on a day-to-day basis. Unless one holds to the inhumane sadistic conclusion that the saved will find the suffering of the lost “most entertaining” [hint: this position is not found anywhere in the Bible], these facts cannot be observed as anything other than an obvious fictional element.

These fictional elements, taken together with the obvious contradictions, indicate strongly that this story from the sixteenth chapter of Luke is just a parable. As such, interpreting these passages as a literal history is nothing short of a fallacy, if not eisegesis. Worse yet, the literal interpretation of the story creates a paradox between the literal resurrection of Lazarus and the story told by Christ in Luke 16, namely that one was resurrected and the other clearly was not. Therefore how could this parable be taken as literal history? One must think on this carefully, as the word “Lazarus” standing alone does not leave much room for differentiating between characters, if the story is to be read literally. This means that were this a literal history, it would be impossible to take it as referencing anyone other than the Lazarus mentioned in John 11:11-14, therefore creating the paradox of “Was he resurrected…or not?” [See Luke 16:28-31.]

The sheer weight of the contradictions and paradoxes crushes any possibility of basing one’s conclusions of the afterlife on this parable alone. It therefore cannot be taken to be teaching about final punishment, man’s state in death, or some kind of post-death vat for the conscious dead. Others who have sought to answer this and other stock arguments have expounded upon the true meaning of the parable. As for us, we would counsel students of the word who have held to traditional viewpoints to avoid building doctrines off of one or a few obscure verses. It is prudent to line up every single passage on the subject in question, in order to help avoid errors and misunderstanding and to gain a clearer picture on the subject.

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